2 pounds fresh hen-of-the-woods (maitake)
¼ cup finely minced shallot (or onion)
2 tablespoons butter
1 quart water plus 1 quart homemade chicken stock (you could use all water)
1 teaspoon fresh thyme (or ¼ teaspoon dried thyme)
¼ teaspoon pepper
1 cup milk or (gasp!) cream (optional)
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
Cut up the mushroom, dividing it into two piles. Pile One should include all the raggedy bits. Pile Two should consist of the nicer bits—small whole “caps,” nicely diced pieces, etc. Things you want to see in your spoon when you eat the soup.
In a medium-size pot (a three or four quart pan with high sides) sauté the shallots and mushrooms (Pile One only) in butter. Don’t be afraid to let the mushrooms brown. Brown is good!
Add the thyme, pepper, and stock. Bring to a simmer and cook for thirty minutes.
Pour the whole mess into a blender and pulverize it. Give it a good sixty seconds. You want to get it to the point where it will pour through a strainer. Return the mixture to the pot. (Don’t bother with the straining—you pulverized it sufficiently, no?)
Heat a sauté pan REALLY HOT. Add olive oil. It should start smoking almost immediately. Throw in Pile Two (the nicer mushroom pieces) and let them cook for a few minutes without stirring—you want them a little crispy on the bottom. Turn off heat and add a ladle or two of the blended mixture. Stir it around to deglaze the sauté pan, then pour it all back into the pot with the rest of the blended mixture. Simmer for about ten minutes.
Add milk or cream, if using. Salt to taste, then cook on low heat just long enough to bring it up to serving temperature.
Serve, with garnish.The garnish is mostly to tell your guests that you have been paying attention, and to interrupt the unrelenting brownness of the soup. A little chopped parsley is sufficient. Maybe some crumbled bacon. If you want to get fancy, a dollop of crème fraîche is sure to impress.